When the relevant people in the office of President Reuven Rivlin met with colleagues from the Jewish People Policy Institute to plan the fourth annual pre-Tisha Be’av Study session that brings together people from different streams of Judaism, it was anticipated that the star attraction would be outgoing Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, who was making his last public appearance in that role.
Sharansky did indeed receive a standing ovation, but the person who stole the show Thursday, albeit unwittingly, was Conservative Rabbi Dov Hayun, who, a few hours earlier, was rudely woken by Haifa police who had come to question him about performing a wedding without having registered it with the office of the Chief Rabbinate.
Rivlin wondered aloud why the police had to come knocking at Hayun’s door at 5:30 in the morning. “Why couldn’t they make a noise at 9 a.m.? Why disturb him at all?” he queried.
One of the other speakers, Rabbi Talia Avnon-Benvenisti, the head of the Israeli Rabbinical Seminary at Hebrew Union College, said she had performed the marriages of several such couples.
In addressing the gathering, Rivlin, aware that Sharansky still had 24 hours left of his tenure at the Jewish Agency, chose to address Sharansky’s successor, Isaac Herzog, as “leader of the opposition,” quipping, “a lot can happen in 24 hours.”
Sharansky, who is unable to shake off his past in a Soviet prison, said those years in prison had prepared him for the agency. He was also grateful that before being sent to prison he had the privilege of serving the Jewish people in the struggle for Soviet Jewry. Because of the unfettered support of Jews from every background, he had been under the impression that outside of the Soviet Bloc, all Jews were united.
Herzog said that despite all the self-deprecating jokes that Sharansky made about the small size of his feet, “He is leaving with very big shoes to fill.” It was a great privilege, he said, to follow someone of Sharansky’s stature. There were certain sectors said Herzog, that sometimes forget they are part of one people – “and one people includes everyone.” Herzog also referred to Hayun’s rude awakening, and warned against the perpetuation of baseless hatred.
Each of the scholars chose a different subject related in one way or another to Tisha Be’av. Rabbi Yaakov Medan, head of the Har Etzion Hesder Yeshiva in Alon Shvut, chose to speak about suicide, which is regarded as so great a sin in Judaism that anyone who takes their own life is buried outside the cemetery fence. However, opinion is divided among great scholars as to whether suicide – even mass suicide – is justified when enemies of the Jews try to force them to convert to another faith.
There are rabbis who say it is a holy act to commit suicide rather than to betray one’s faith. And there are others who say it is better to live and sacrifice one’s one faith. A third school of thought, propagated by Chabad, says to just keep on believing no matter what happens to you. Medan cited historical examples of all three options, pointing out that any future progeny of converts were lost forever to Judaism, and people who committed suicide would have no future progeny. But in Czarist days, regardless of threats, Chabadniks continued to disseminate Jewish teachings. Medan surmised that even though he may not have known it at the time, Sharansky had been influenced by the same determination which guided Chabad.
Prof. Nili Vazana, head of the Department of Bible Studies at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, chose to speak about the prophet Amos, who lamented the abandonment of God’s commandments and the oppression and injustice suffered by the poor.
Hayun, who is of Tunisian background, recalled the Nazi labor camp in Tunis and said that if the war had not ended when it did, the Nazis would have built another Auschwitz in North Africa. Just as there are secularists who protest the closure of coffee shops and restaurants on Tisha Be’av, he said, there are people who do not stand at the sound of the siren on Holocaust Remembrance Day. Both Tisha Be’av and the Holocaust are among the most tragic episodes in Jewish history, he said, but named others in which there was also considerable loss of life, and in all the cases he mentioned there had been instances of Jews killing other Jews. This disturbed him more than anything else “because we are all brothers.” He suggested that this might be the legacy of Cain and Abel.
Avnon-Benvenisti focused her address on the poetry of former poet laureate Haim Gouri, who died in January of this year, and wrote in verse after verse that all the holy cows have been slaughtered, meaning that the values we held dear have disintegrated.
JPPI president Avinoam Bar Yosef said it is not just the destruction of the Temple that remains an open wound in the history of the Jewish People, “It’s the baseless hatred.” Turning to the outgoing and incoming chairmen of the Jewish Agency, he said, “Finally, after all these years, Natan Sharansky is free.” Of Herzog, he said he is the right man in the right place bringing both his heritage and his political experience to the halls of the Jewish Agency where they are sorely needed.